An area north of Antelope Lake in Plumas National Forest is going to play host to around 10,000 unwashed hippies next month, and area residents and the local sheriff are sounding alarm bells and wondering what kind of mess they'll be cleaning up.

The Rainbow Family gathering is an annual event that moves around to different national forest sites each year. And because it has no central organizing body or leadership, the group never calls itself an organized event — and therefore doesn't seek permits or get porta-potties for the 5,000 to 10,000 people who typically show up.

It's basically an enormous campout that happens around the Fourth of July, with a fair amount of pot smoked and drum circles formed. But the group has sometimes had a reputation for leaving behind a fair amount of trash.

For this reason, and because there will likely be a lot of traffic on roads that aren't built for it, the Plumas County Sheriff's Office put out a press release warning residents of the coming invasion — which is going to overlap with the High Sierra Music Festival happening in Quincy, about 45 miles away from the campout.

"The Rainbow Family Gathering, known for attracting large crowds, has historically refused to complete the required permits for their event. We anticipate the arrival of 5,000-10,000 attendees by July 4th," the sheriff's office says in its release. "This influx will create substantial challenges, including environmental impact, and public safety issues."

The sheriff is warning residents about "illegal or socially unacceptable behavior," which it lists as including drug and alcohol abuse, confrontations with locals, and public nudity.

"Attendees are known to set up extensive infrastructure, including welcome tents, camping areas, outdoor kitchens, and health care zones," the sheriff's office says. "There have been significant challenges during previous gatherings, including increased criminal activity, environmental damage, and abandoned vehicles."

The sheriff further warned residents to plan for excessive traffic on rural roads, and to "Ensure your cars and homes are locked at all times to prevent theft and unauthorized access."

This panic may all be overblown, however the human waste issue probably can't be overstated. The camps typically dig their own latrine trenches, referred to as "shitters," which are treated each day with lime and campfire ash (per Wikipedia), with new ones dug each day. However depending on the size of the camp, this seems like it could get pretty nasty — and there was a reported outbreak of dysentery at one 1987 gathering.

Speaking to the LA Times, Adam Buxbaum, 36, who has been a lifelong Rainbow Family attendee since he was a baby, pushes back on the idea that anyone should be worried about their arrival, or that public nudity should be talked about as some "malicious" thing.

"We believe in letting people express themselves as long as they’re not harming their neighbors," he tells the LAT. "The Rainbow Gathering is the legacy of the original hippies."

Buxbaum further explains, "It's a community. We go there on paper — and it’s the truth — to pray for peace on the Fourth of July. That’s primary, but secondarily, we go there to spend time with all of our dearest friends and family once a year."

The very first Rainbow Family gathering happened in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado in 1972, and some years' gatherings have drawn 30,000 people.

The lack of organization and the hippie nature of the gatherings has both attracted unsavory characters over the years, and led to unintended costs for local communities and the Forest Service. Montana newspaper The Missoulian reported in 2013 that the Rainbow Family gathering that year cost the Forest Service $573,000.

"It’s similar to Burning Man, but these guys here are just a little dirtier," says Robert Joseph, vice chairman of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, speaking to the SF Chronicle. "They kind of leave a trail [of trash] when they come to these places."

Representing four tribes who live in the region — the Mountain Maidu, Paiute, Pit River and Washoe — Joseph tells the Chronicle he hand-delivered a letter to the Rainbow Family asking them to reconsider their location choice this year, but it appears to have been ignored.

Some years, the location selection isn't told to the Forest Service until a few days before the gathering occurs.

The Plumas County Sheriff's Office, local police departments, and National Park Police say they plan to have a significant presence in the area in order to minimize negative impacts. But Buxbaum tells the LA Times that the gatherings are dwindling in part because participants are getting tired of all the cops.

"A lot of people have quit coming to the gatherings permanently because they’re tired of being searched and harassed every single year," he says.

As for the cleanup costs, it's not necessarily true that the group just moves in and then leaves without any care for the environment. Following the gathering, it is traditional that some of the Rainbow attendees stay behind to aid in the cleanup effort.

Hilary Markin, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told the Denver Post after the 2022 gathering in Colorado, "Some rainbows stay on site after the gathering is over to work with our team to clean up. In our experience, yes, many rainbows stay after to help us clean up, and we expect it to be no different this year.”

Top image: Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images